Class and cultural rifts in booming Singapore tear apart families and lovers in Lim’s (Fistful of Colors, 2003) affecting, lushly textured historical novel.
Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s isn’t yet a glittering metropolis—instead, it’s a warren of squatters’ shacks and crowded alleys, where young Wong Ping-ping struggles to survive. Her mother, Yoke Lan, a beautiful nightclub singer/courtesan who plays a Chinese instrument called the pipa, left her for Hong Kong to seek her fortune. Ping sleeps in a cage in a rooming house, working in the landlord’s cafe and local markets to earn money for school books. Her boon companion is Weng, the son of a poor family, who dreams of being a flautist; his father, a river worker, is also a pipa virtuoso who takes Ping on as a student. They lead a threadbare but rich existence in the multiracial bustle of Singapore’s Chinatown and along the colorful, decrepit banks of the city’s river. But then Yoke Lan returns with a rich husband, and Ping moves to their grand house, posing as a distant relative to hide her mother’s disreputable past. Ping’s new life is wonderfully advantaged but loveless and tense; meanwhile, her deepening involvement with Weng becomes complicated by their starkly diverging fortunes. Her stepfather’s business moves to evict Weng’s neighborhood from a riverfront where land values are skyrocketing along with Singapore’s economy. Fate carries Ping to America, and after decades, she returns to take stock of her fraught relationships with Yoke Lan and Weng. Singaporean novelist Lim paints an evocative, atmospheric portrait of old Singapore and its vigorous, sometimes-brutal transition to modernity. She shows readers deeply rooted communities bulldozed to make way for grandiose developments; populist movements pitted against brusque bureaucracies and police strong-arming; and traditional cultures crumbling before a new ethos of on-the-make capitalism and technocratic expertise. Her well-drawn characters bear the scars of this history—Yoke Lan, for example, is a bundle of brittle social ambitions and insecurities as she tries to fit in with the elite—yet they retain their vibrant individuality as they struggle to keep their feet amid the upheaval. Lim tells their story in prose that’s subtle, cleareyed and lyrical, linking a city’s rise with the emotional travails of its inhabitants.
A fine, deeply felt saga of lives caught up in progress that’s as heartbreaking as it is hopeful.